Turkey: Instability Ahead

Commentary No. 403, June 15, 2015

Turkey held parliamentary elections on June 7, 2015. Against the expectations of virtually everyone, the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP in its Turkish initials) lost its absolute majority. This was seen as a major defeat both for the party and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The correspondent of the Financial Times called the results “seismic” and cited a commentator/critic of Erdogan who said: “There’s no risk-free path for him at the moment; anything he chooses will be a gamble.” The headline of this article says Erdogan has a “post-poll choice: step back or forge ahead.”

Virtually all observers, within and outside Turkey, have been analyzing the elections with similar dramatic verbiage. To understand why, we have to go back to the beginning of Turkey’s history as an independent state in 1923. The Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923) ended with the Treaty of Lausanne. At that point, the interim parliament called for elections. This second parliament proclaimed the republic, accepted the Treaty of Lausanne, and abolished the caliphate. The new majority party, The Republican People’s Party (CHP in its Turkish initials), soon became the only party. It was led by its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, until his death in 1938.

Ataturk’s policies were modeled in many ways on what he considered those of France. He was an anticlerical Jacobin who sought to “modernize” his country. Central to his Jacobinism was the French view of the relations between the state and religions, called laicité. The Turkish translation of this word is an invented cognate, laiklik.

The Jacobinism was expressed in Ataturk’s ferocious opposition to any kind of intermediary allegiances between the state and the individual, whether such intermediaries were religious, ethnic, or regional. There were four large possible intermediaries, and Ataturk took action against all four. The first was Islam – hence the abolition of the caliphate and the banning of Islamic vestments. The second was the Kurds – hence the denial of the use of their language and indeed of their very existence, calling them “mountain Turks.” The third was the Armenians – hence their slaughter and expulsion. The fourth was the Greek Orthodox population and church – hence the forced transfers to Greece in exchange for Turks resident in Greece.

Furthermore, for Ataturk and the CHP, the creation of a modern state implied a careful limitation of the boundaries of the Turkish state. This meant rejecting the ideology of pan-Turkism, which sought to unite all Turkic-speaking peoples. It rejected a fortiori so-called Turanism, which sought to unite all peoples that were linguistically descended from common roots, like Finns, Hungarians, Mongols, Koreans, and Japanese, among others.

Quite to the contrary. Ataturk sought to “purify” Turkish by rejecting all linguistic imports from Arabic, Persian, Greek, and Latin in Turkish, as used within the boundaries of Anatolia, which provided the basic boundaries of modern Turkey. He also ended the use of the Arabic alphabet, replacing it with the Latin alphabet.

Successive versions of the constitution all included the term “secular” in the description of the republic. In 1930, Ataturk wrote of the “erroneous appellations” by “co-nationals who has been incited to think of themselves as Kurds, Circassians, Laz or Bosnians.” They were rather, he said, “individual members of the nation.”

The second issue of continuing importance for Turkey was its geopolitical orientation. In the early days of the republic, Turkey entertained links with the Soviet Union. They shared a sense of being “revolutionary” and consequently not being accepted by the Western world. But for Ataturk, this alliance receded as he pursued his aspiration to create a modern state following the French model. Then, with the coming to power of Hitler, Turkey was courted by Germany. Hence, when the Second World War began, the Turkish state was torn between possible allegiances, and opted for neutrality, which was seen by the Allied powers as too pro-German.

In part to repair the relations with western Europe (and North America), Ataturk’s successor Ismet Inönü ended one-party rule in 1944 and called for elections. The CHP easily won the first election, but after that, it became a minority party. It proclaimed itself social-democratic and joined the Socialist international. It continued to be strongly nationalist but found its electoral strength in urban areas from middle-class professional and managerial elites. Its supporters pushed both for pro-Western policies (like joining NATO) and for greater civil liberties.

The CHP found itself beset by opponents. There were now the successive versions of a conservative party, which placed less emphasis on pro-Western policies. It had strong roots in rural areas and a somewhat more tolerant view of Islam. There was the army and the judiciary, who wanted to maintain a very strong state and were extremely vigilant in the defense of laicité, leading to several military takeovers. And there were the Kurds who began to organize politically and eventually started a military insurrection under a party/army known as the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK in its Turkish initials). This group, led by Abdullah Ocalan, originally proclaimed itself Marxist-Leninist but later evolved into a revised socialist orientation willing to integrate politically as an autonomous region within Turkey. Ocalan was captured with CIA assistance and condemned to death, which was commuted into lifetime imprisonment on a remote island.

The Muslim-based parties that emerged in this period were successively outlawed and their leaders either imprisoned or barred from politics. So, when Erdogan’s “moderate Islamic” party, the AKP, first came to power in 2002, it was seen as a veritable progressive revolution. It was still faced with strong opposition from many left “secularist” intellectuals and also faced the possibility of an army takeover. Erdogan carefully and successfully navigated all the shoals, and grew steadily stronger. At this point, Erdogan sought a parliament that would vote for a new constitution creating a very strong presidential system. The AKP that seemed to represent a progressive force in 2002 now seemed to be the potentially dictatorial party of the future.

Erdogan did however do one remarkable and surprising thing in his late term of office. He started negotiations with Ocalan to see if there could be some formula of devolution of power that would resolve the issue. He got great credit for this among the Kurds. However, he also pursued a new foreign policy that reinserted Turkey into the Middle Eastern arena. His ferocious opposition to Syria’s Bashir al-Assad led him to engage in negative behavior vis-a-vis Syrian Kurds who gave priority to opposing the Islamic State and were allied with the PKK.

Ergo, in these last elections, the latest legal Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP in its Turkish initials), pursued a new policy entirely. It created a progressive rainbow coalition. On its slate of candidates were persons from all major ethnic groups, the first openly gay candidate, and perhaps most important a large number of women. This party received over 13% of the vote nationally, enabling a Kurdish party for the very first time to exceed the high threshold of 10% needed to have seats in parliament.

Erdogan has no chance now of enacting his constitution. His immediate problem is whether to try to govern as a minority party (very difficult) or to ally with one of the three parties with the votes to give him a majority: the left HDP, the secularist CHP, or the far rightwing party. It is a very difficult choice for him, for his party, and for Turkey. The outcome will have a fundamental impact not only on the future of Turkey but on the geopolitics of the Middle East.